Recently in academia Category

Yesterday, our group of job market hopefuls met to review drafts of their application letters. For obvious reasons, I can't really talk about that process in much detail, although I think I can say that nearly every student who goes through this process realizes eventually that (a) such letters are more difficult to write than they first appear, and (b) the best such letters go through several drafts. The job letter is a very specific genre, one that requires most of us to unlearn (at least temporarily) some of our more cherished habits of academic prose.

One thing I was thinking about over the past few days was the question of method, or more specifically, the question of method vs. methodology. I don't think I'm bursting anyone's bubble when I say that the vast majority of us, myself included, use the word methodology when in fact we mean method. "Methodology" sounds more sophisticated; honestly, I'm not sure it's any more complicated than that. And I can't tell you the number of times I've heard people ask job candidates to explain their methodology.

Maybe it's just my own sensitivity to the terms, but I get the sense that, in recent years, we've placed more explicit emphasis in our field on "having a methodology," to the extent that we engage in a great deal of unnecessary nominalization. In other words, where at one time, folk might ask about the theories we use or draw on, that proliferation now feels to me as though it's coming under the umbrella of methodology. And I get the sense that many of us feel compelled to distinguish our projects from others on the basis of methodology rather than say site, theory, material, etc.

And yet. I don't think you can "have a methodology." For me, a method is a particular practice, one that can range from the algorithmic (coding discourse for certain textual features) to the heuristic (the application of various cultural or critical theories) to the aleatory (fun!). Nobody just uses one method; most of us blend several at any given moment. You might draw on one method to test, qualify, or nuance another. My own thought, though, is that there really aren't huge numbers of actual methods--where our projects really differ from each other is in the collection and selection of materials and the choice of particular filters (i.e., theories) to guide our practice.

My understanding of methodology, then, is sort of armchair etymological. Methodology is the study or account of methods, in the way that a graduate survey course on methods might proceed. Why a body uses method X instead of method Y is a methodological question, but the answer to a methodological question is a method, not (for me) a methodology. I don't think I have a methodology; what I have instead are a range of methods (and that range has broadened in recent years), some of which will show up in a given piece of writing.

As I was browsing around, I came across an interesting piece from a few years back, by a fellow named Eduardo Corte-Real, who suggests reserving methodology for that broader usage (the science/logic of methods), and offers the term "methodoxy" as a lighter term that replaces the heaviness of logos with the idea of teaching and/or opinion implied by doxa. I must say, I'm a little enchanted by the word--it seems to me that much of what passes for methodological discussion is in fact methodoxical. In a field like Writing Studies, we will never achieve the kind of methodological rigor found in the sciences, natural or social. Nor honestly should we want to. But there's something of that pressure that lurks behind the question "what's your methodology?" I'm not sure that we could answer that question on behalf of the discipline, much less ourselves. I like the idea, though, of methodoxy as the term that describes our field's debates over method, our own practices of blending various methods to accomplish research aims, and our processes of choosing from among the methods that are available to us.

No grand conclusion, but I may sneak methodoxy into an essay soon. And I'm going to try and keep myself honest about not saying methodology when I mean method.

That's all.

Why I am Not So Wise

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I'm a little inspired by the chapter titles of Ecce Homo this week, as my summer course prepares to dip into our pal Freddy for Thursday. And while I have to admit that the leap on my last paycheck was gratifying, I nevertheless find myself these days contending with:

My summer graduate course, which marches along at slightly faster than double-time, to fit 15 weeks of work into 6. During the regular season, I normally take downtime after I teach, to allow myself a little reflection and recharge. No such luxury during the summer. Had I not been reading today, I would be faced tomorrow with a big pile for Thursday.

Responding to essays, drafts, chapters, et al. I can't say much more about that here except to say that it got to the point this sem where I started keeping a folder in my bag devoted entirely to the stack of student work I have to respond to. I think my left shoulder is permanently lower than my right.

A slew of review work. I did both coaching and Stage I reviewing for CCCC this year, and have since received requests from at least 5 journals for work. I'm still figuring out where I feel the strongest ethical obligation in regards to that stack of work.

So, no. My semester/year hasn't finished yet. My sense is that I will be lucky to squeeze 2-3 weeks of actual summer out of the months ahead.

An interesting piece of news floated across Twitterspace, and across some blogs this week: the revelation that the Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine was, in fact, a fake journal sponsored by a pharmaceutical company. Even more dismaying was a followup story about how Elsevier, publisher of AJBJM, has an entire division devoted to such fraudulence, the so-called strategic medical communications agency, Excerpta Medica. Over at the ACRLog, Barbara Fister has a nice post with the link to the original Scientist article that outed the journal, as well as some discussion of the information literacy implications. Long story short, Elsevier's track record with respect to integrity is not particularly sparkling.

While it's hard to imagine something similar happening in the humanities, recent discussions of a particular anti-plagiarism vendor should probably give us rhetoric and technology folk pause, particularly when you recall that the most likely outlet for scholarship related to said vendor happens to be an Elsevier journal. But I digress.

It's tempting, I think, to see this and other events as further indictments of the academy's fetishization of peer review, but I'm not sure I would agree. And I say that as someone who would really like to see other models available to us for the circulation and distribution of our work. But the fact of the matter is that problems like these have more to do with the oligopolists than with peer review per se.

I review for several journals now, and honestly, I see maybe 1-2 submissions per journal a year. I have some quality control as a result, but the real responsibility for quality lies with the editorial staff of each, the folk who aggregate the results. I've thought a bit about what it must be like for those who were hoodwinked by the press into sitting on the board or reviewing for these journals, because my gut reaction to this story was to blame the reviewers. But that's assuming that submissions actually made it to reviewers, and there's no real guarantee that this is the case. Writers and reviewers alike operate on good faith, the assumption that there's some integrity at the editorial stage. Beyond a certain size, the editorial staff cease to function as part of peer review--their function is more aggregation and facilitation. And given the kind of money involved with the oligopoly journals, I guess I'm not totally surprised at something like this.

It's shameful, but not as shameful as it would be if the reviewers for a "real" journal had been found to be accepting money from Merck (or whomever) for certain outcomes.

Hmm. I feel like I have more to say, but I'm not sure what. Maybe I'll revisit this post after I think about it. For now, though, that's all.

Well, no. Not really. But it is the last day of classes of the final semester of my tenure as the Director of Graduate Studies for the CCR Program at Syracuse. Technically, my time isn't up until the end of June, and double technically, I'll still be executing some duties through the following year.

The main one is our annual Placement Committee, which guides our veteran students through the job search process. This was something that the previous DGS and I developed when I first got here. That year, we had our first couple of students on the market (the program was only about 4-5 years old at the time), and they had to cobble together support and advice from various sources, which didn't work as well as it could have. So we decided to set up a subcommittee and develop some procedures that, beginning in the spring, would guide those students through the process, help them vet and revise their materials, provide simulated phone/f2f interviews and job talks, etc.

Because of the rhythm of the search process, though, it's a responsibility that begins in April and runs for 9-10 months, ideally. And so I'll be sticking around this job for that purpose, as a member (but no longer chair) of our Graduate Studies Committee, for another year or so.

In honor of the fact that this is my final go-round, at least for a while, with the Placement Committee, I spent some time over the last week revising the materials we hand out at our initial meeting, which is tomorrow. The 5-page guide/overview to the market is linked below--feel free to give it a glance, and/or share the link with someone who'll be hitting the market in the fall. It's not as detailed as the various books now available, and it's pretty specific to rhet/comp, but it's worked well for us for the past few years...

That's all.


Ambient Reading

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Paul's got a great entry today, on "How to Read Everything?" Seriously great. Lots of good thoughts in there.

One of the things that's instructive about his entry is the list of various strategies that he's tried and abandoned, which is one of the things I recommend to folk on a regular basis. There are all sorts of ways to manage one's "mental intertextual map," and the trick is find the ones that will work for you at a given time.

One thing that I would add to Paul's account is that you have different needs at different times. My own strategies tend to resemble his quite a bit--I don't take a lot of notes myself, although that's changed a little as I've gotten older and more forgetful. Like him, I tend to have a very strong procedural memory--I remember colors, covers, the place on the page where an important quote is, etc. But I do do a little bit of underlining, not so I can go back through a text and cull the marks, but because I find that it reinforces my procedural memories. It keeps me on a given page and at a particular spot on the page a little longer, which seems to burn that spot into my memory a little more.

A couple of other points worth raising. There's a difference between reading a book and reading a discipline, even if we tend to use the same verb. So in "reading everything," I hear "everything" to mean the discipline, and that's a different strategy. You can "read" a journal in 10 minutes if you're reading it to know what's there, so that you can return to what's valuable to you later. And that kind of reading is ultimately quite valuable--Brian has written recently about "ambient research," and I just finished a collaborative piece with a friend on a similar topic--it's a matter of entering the flow of a discipline, getting a feel for what's going on, before you make the choices about where to drill down.

So maybe I'd describe this as a difference between ambient and directed reading. We are trained very heavily in directed reading, and rarely are advised about ambient reading. In part, this is because it comes as a result of enculturation, and so seems a "natural" outgrowth of that process. I think I could argue that what I've been working on in my graduate teaching in the past 4-5 years is pushing my students more towards a model of ambient reading, an approach that could productively complement the emphasis on directed reading that tends to dominate graduate coursework. And I think that part of my current interest in Web2 stuff is how those tools can help us accomplish that.

So there's that.

Sprint v Marathon

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If late fall and early spring were examinazing! then my late spring and early summer are shaping up to be dissertastic! which should go some distance towards explaining why I seem to be fixated on that particular process as of late.

I wanted to make note of Jim's comparison of dissertation-writing to the baseball season, because I think he's dead-on accurate. The day Jim posted that, I was explaining to someone or other why I'm such a fan of baseball. I like the gradualness of the season, and while every once in a while, you can watch magical things happen (last season's Rays, e.g.), part of the appeal for me is its omnipresence. There's always a game on somewhere, so I can watch if I want. But I can also miss a game or a week as well, without feeling like I've missed too much. It's not a game that readily lends itself to the highlight, and it fits well into the zone of continuous partial attention (CPA) that characterizes my working spaces.

I'm not interested in spinning the allegory out too far here, though, except to note that writing the dissertation is a lot more like going through a season of baseball than it is other sports (and maybe other activities). To use another well-worn sports analogy, it's much more like a marathon than a sprint, and part of the trouble that folks have in making that transition is that, for their entire educational careers, they've been practicing the sprint. And there are some folk who manage, through luck or persistence, to sprint a mile, stop, sprint a mile, stop, sprint a mile, stop, until they've done a marathon's worth of sprints. In a sense, I did that with my own dissertation.

But when I got to the book, I wised up, I think. I still accomplished it in a very intense stretch of time, but the way I used that time was very different. Instead of bouncing back and forth between front and back burners, I kept my book on the CPA burner, and figured out how to manage different types of activities at different times, all of which kept me focused without burning me out.

But my advice here is not to do what I did, with either project. Rather, I'd say that it's important to be open to the possibility that the "rules" you've constructed for yourself and your writing--composed as they were during a time where your work was much shorter and burstier--might be revised. What I ended up doing was trying really hard not to love my quirks too hard. Use outlines, freewrites, bubblemaps, timed writing, journaling, notetaking systems, everything--in particular, try out those things that you don't think you need. Accept that the dissertation process is different from anything you've done before, and develop new habits and strategies to manage it. Try a different word processor, a new chair, a new workspace, a new workflow, everything. In the process, you'll learn more about what you need to get it done and what you thought you needed but don't.

The major projects that I've done (and there was a long stretch where this blog would count as onesuch) have always changed the way I write, sometimes for a while, sometimes forever. And I'm much more conscious of what I need to write well, which has served me well since then. In some ways, I'm tempted to argue that that's the real affordance of the dissertation--just as exams give you an unparalleled opportunity to learn the field, the dissertation gives you a similar opportunity to really learn who you are and can be as a writer.

I'd like that idea much more if it didn't sound like I was romanticizing the process unnecessarily. I don't mean to--I've both seen and been part of less-than-ideal dissertation situations--but I think that, even when things aren't going well, we can still learn a great deal about our writerly selves, for better or worse.

That's all. I feel like I have maybe 3 or 4 more posts about dissertating in me. We'll see how much time I have over the next few...


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Steve had a nice comment to my last post:

I would add as a slightly different but related truism: there are a lot of different ways to skin the same cat. I think that everyone working on a diss or a book or major project lives in terror of coming across a title that appears to be about the same topic. But there are a lot of ways to take different angles on something. We did a job search this year, and it was interesting to see how many of our top candidates were doing essentially the same thing but doing them just differently enough to be unique.

Every project is a snowflake, I suppose.

What I didn't say in my last post was that, when that conversation started, my first thought was that I was going to have to offer this advice. It's far more common, I think, for writers to come across an essay or book that feels like it's covered the same ground. I'll never forget reading Mark Taylor's The Moment of Complexity the first time--I had just read, over the course of maybe 5 or 6 months, a bunch of the primary sources that Taylor relied on, and that material was percolating in my head. Then I picked up Taylor and all of a sudden, he was saying all the things that had only formed half-baked in my own head. It made it simultaneously exhilarating, deflating, and easy to read.

When it comes to working on the dissertation, though, I think that the terror that Steve describes above is a biggie. And part of that is our attachment to values like Originality--what seems like an original thought or approach in the context of a graduate program may be old news in another discipline, another program, or wherever. I've seen dissertators overhaul their methods because they found someone who had done something similar, and I think that's almost always a mistake.

First, I think that it's more productive to think of one's project in terms of its contribution rather than in terms of its originality. That's tougher than I make it sound. Part of the problem is that our model for designing projects (the old CARS model from Swales) focuses on distinction in a way that can be misread. The fact is that there are many dimensions along which a project can be distinct from another: method, site, background, genealogy, application, approach, etc. What we forget in the humanities sometimes is that small distinctions (applying a particular method to this site instead of that one) can produce important insights. Perhaps a pedagogical approach or curriculum that's worked well in one context does not in another. Maybe an interpretive attitude suited for certain artifacts is less suited for others. And so on.

My second point is related to yesterday's post, and that's that rather than living in terror of someone having been there before, we should think of those instances as opportunities for conversation. I've never read a book that was the absolute final word on something, my own included. There's always lots of room for additional work. And that's the kind of work that 99% of us actually do, connecting this idea to that one, bridging one tradition with another, building upon what's come before. The fantasy of initiating paradigm shifts is all well and good, but when it hangs up our ability to get work done, it's time to set it aside and focus instead on doing good work, making a strong contribution to the discipline.

I have those fantasies too, but they're best combined with a sense of humor and a commitment to the work itself.

That's all.


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I was talking with one of my many dissertators the other day. She was worried because she had read a couple of texts, one article and one book, that purported to do what she herself planned for her dissertation. However, she discovered upon reading them that, in fact, they weren't doing anything like what she wanted to do. I think that she was concerned that she was going to have to conform to their particular approach and that subsequently she'd be doing something that she didn't like.

I relate this little story not to get people guessing about the person in question, although some of you might know who it is, but rather to relay some of the best advice that I received/absorbed whilst in graduate school myself. Namely,

The best thing you can find is someone or something to work against.

I mean "against" here in two different ways, both of which are captured by the supercheesy pick-up line "If I said you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?" I wish I had a better example, but there you go.

One of the things that I've really been emphasizing over the past few years as a graduate instructor is the importance of visualizing (and spatializing) research networks. We speak of the importance of situating one's work, but I've really pushed at that to make it more concrete. In fact, it's been a few years now since I assigned straight-up seminar papers in my graduate courses. Instead I've tried to design courses and assignments that focus on certain elements of the scholarship process. Concept maps are probably my fave, as long-time readers will notice...

Anyhow, against is a word that suggests both opposition/distinction to and contact with someone or something, and for the texts that matter most to the work I do, I work against them in both senses. Most books start out weighted in one direction or the other, and the ones that I value most tend to balance out, as I see the weaknesses of the ones I like and the virtues of the ones I don't.

So yeah, find the stuff that you can work against. If I had rules, that'd be one of em.

That's all.

a strange moment of resonance

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Lots of chatter yesterday over the working paper "Professors on the Production Line, Students on their Own," written by Mark Bauerlein, and covered by IHE.

I don't have a great deal to say about the report, but I would note 3 things. First, a gigantic piece of the puzzle that's missing from Bauerlein's analysis is the degree to which the administrative push towards part-time faculty has had a similarly chilling effect on the quality of instruction. I don't take issue with the fact that the current system is far more likely to reward full-time faculty for focusing on scholarship, but that's only one piece of the puzzle. Bauerlein's paper mentions adjuncts in places, but tends to lump them together with graduate students as people on-the-way to the tenure-track.

Second, there's a great deal of slippage among literary studies (where some of his most pointed arguments come from), the humanities, and education as the putative scope of this "report." As I noted yesterday elsewhere,

We need to intensify the pedagogy. Teachers must raise the engagement rates by command. For instance, they could require one-on-one conferences, add more and steadier homework assignments, build a consultation component into the syllabus, and track student progress closely during the term. Students should be made to recognize their enrollment in a course as a participatory process.

the first paragraph of B's conclusion is a list of practices that are already considered standard operating procedure by many of us in rhetoric and composition. I could be far snarkier about this if I wanted.

Finally, it was interesting to see an instance of the "network plateau" argument I chatted about the other day. To wit,

The first ten books on Moby-Dick mattered because Melville's epic had altered American literary history forever, and its critical interpretation and positioning remained partial and uncertain. But by the 40th and 41st books, Moby-Dick had lost its potency as a scholarly well-spring. An early work on Moby-Dick might have established it as a Great American Novel and changed the syllabus of American literature. But by 1995, another book on Moby-Dick, however astute and eloquent, was just that--another book on Moby-Dick. The general value of Moby-Dick as a great novel that students should read and study survives, but the necessity of researching it has withered.

In order to agree with this argument wholesale, one has to agree with certain premises about the nature of the discipline, the function of scholarship, etc., but as I don't consider myself a literary scholar, I'll leave that to someone else. I was just struck by the resonance of this line of argument with the network/scale stuff.

That's all.

Non-blogging the Cs

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That's what I'm doing, I guess. I do have the excuse of not actually being there. With the exception so far of Dennis and Alex, there are a lot of folk who don't share my excuse who are non-blogging it just as hard as I am.

That's a really backwards way, I suppose, of a little bemoaning on my part. I'm happy to update status and tweet, but if you don't believe that something's been lost in the grand migration to nanoblogging, well, I'd disagree. Not that CCCC was ever a hotbed of blogtastic simulcasting or anything, but the peak of that activity seems to have passed. In an age of increased networking and transparency, the conference seems content to slide back into pre-web levels of opacity. And by the conference, I mean us, of course. I hear tell that the wifi at this year's conference is dismal, which is certainly a contributing factor, but again, it's not as though it's something that we don't have control over. Or at least influence. Wifi should be considered a conference utility not unlike meeting spaces or electricity, and we should be holding our conference sites to pretty high standards.

Anyways. What actually prompted my post was Steve's link to Dan's presentation, and his ruminations on the conference in general:

what's the point of conferences nowadays? Sure, it's about networking, having meetings in person (always more efficient than meetings online, I will admit), getting "away" in the sense of a retreat, getting "away" in the sense of an opportunity to go out with friends, etc. It's fun. But now that it is possible- even pretty easy- to put a presentation like this up on the web, I'm not sure if the pros of a face to face meet-up outweigh the cons of conferences- the costs of registration/lodging/food, the time away from work/family/friends/home, the damage to the earth resulting from air travel, the bad eating/drinking habits, etc.

My answer to this is similarly ambivalent, seeing as how this is the 2nd year in a row that I've missed CCCC, and I can't really lay claim to missing it especially. It's always been one of those things for me that I enjoy when I'm there, but don't really like getting ready for, getting to, or recovering from.

That being said, I think one of the things that's important about CCCC is that it's the one time where we catch a glimpse of the true size of our network/discipline. It's only a glimpse, mind you, but still. As large and unwieldy as the conference is, our discipline is larger still, and it doesn't hurt to remind ourselves of that on an annual basis. I think we forget sometimes. Larger in terms of people, but also larger in terms of interests, perspectives, and philosophy.

But that being said, I think it fair to note that the conference has largely run afoul of the problems of scale. I think it's designed for a much smaller group, and I think our vision of it has not really kept pace with its growth. I've written on a few other occasions about how that's the case, so I won't go into details, but I do honestly believe that it's not a matter of tweaking. I'd love to see some overhauls and I'd love to see some conversations about the possibilities, but I'm not optimistic that either will ever occur. And I've written (and ranted to anyone who'll listen) about why I don't feel that optimism is warranted, and don't really feel like dredging up those args either.

I do think a national conference is worth it, but I'm not sure our national conference is worth it. But then, it's what we've got, and so I'm thinking now about Louisville, and wishing that a few more panel reviews find their way online in the next couple of days.

That's all.



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